'Is it still a case of plus ça change?'

Fifty years ago this year, Trinidadian John La Rose launched New Beacon Books, the UK’s first black publishing house—although he preferred to call it a “publishing maisonette”. Its inaugural title was his own poetry collection Foundations. He joined a trajectory of black publishing stretching back to the 18th century, with the likes of Olaudah Equiano (who in 1789 published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano) and Robert Wedderburn (who produced an anti-slavery paper in 1817).

My début with Allison & Busby came in 1967, when I was tagged with the label: “The UK’s youngest and first black woman publisher.”

I was a student barely out of my teens when the idea of book publishing lured/saved me from a career in law. A chance encounter at a party with another bookish undergraduate, and a publishing venture was conceived. Clive Allison and I had only ideals and enthusiasm to compensate for all we lacked in experience, money, knowledge of print runs, or distribution. We were committed to making poetry accessible and affordable. We produced 15,000 paperback copies of our first three titles, initially selling them on the streets and knocking on doors. To survive, we had to find paid employment and confine A&B activity to the evenings and at weekends.

Clive worked at Panther Books and Macmillan. As well as presenting a programme called “Break for Women” at the BBC World Service for Africa, I got a job at The Cresset Press as an editorial assistant-cum-anything-else-that-needed-doing.

Then A&B was offered a manuscript much-rejected on both sides of the Atlantic: The Spook who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee. Backing our faith in this first novel, Clive and I left our jobs. In 1969, by sheer persistence, flouting the conventions and following our instincts, we made Spook... a success, persuading the Observer to print extracts and selling translation and other subsidiary rights.

The A&B list was certainly diverse, including writers from the Caribbean, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, the Americas and Japan. I wish I could say that as co-founder of the imprint, my race and gender were not an issue. However, from the get-go a common assumption made by many—from window cleaner to bank manager—was that Clive was my boss, or that my involvement with the company was attributable to a relationship other than a strictly business one (we were married to other people, not each other).

At the London Book Fair this year, I spoke to someone who worked in a South African library 40 years ago. They told me that A&B books were banned there, not because of their content but because they emanated from a company with a racially mixed workforce. Since those anachronistic days, the world—and A&B’s make-up—has changed. I left the company after 20 years as its editorial director.

In “Black Books”, an article I wrote for the New Statesman in April 1984, I wrote:

Is it enough to respond to a demand for books reflecting the presence of “ethnic minorities” while perpetuating a system which does not actively encourage their involvement at all levels? The reality is that the appearance and circulation of books supposedly produced with these communities in mind is usually dependent on what the dominant white (male) community, which controls schools, libraries, bookshops and publishing houses, will permit.

Over the decades I have been involved with various initiatives, including GAP (Greater Access to Publishing), a group that in the early 1980s campaigned to diversify the industry. I recall comparing notes with Toni Morrison, for many years a senior editor at Random House in New York. She commissioned various black writers while being ever mindful that if any one of them was less than successful, the presumption might be that “black books don’t sell”.

The entry of “diverse” talent into the mainstream industry has been an uphill task. Among the individual, stand-out black women who have put their heads above the parapet are [critic, broadcaster and editor] Ellah Allfrey, the late Alison Morrison [who worked for Penguin, Egmont and Walker] and [literary agent] Elise Dillsworth. But there have always been BAME-headed publishers rocking the status quo with various degrees of success. With a view to sharing experiences and maximising mutual strengths, Verna Wilkins (Tamarind Books’ founder) posited an initiative called IBP (Independent Black Publishers), of which I was patron. Its members boasted some 200 years’ worth of publishing experience between them.

Anniversaries loom: 2017 will be A&B’s half-century, as well as 25 years since Daughters of Africa, an international anthology I edited which showcased around 200 women writers of African descent, to counter a prevalent impression that they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. That list would today be augmented by some powerful names, yet there remains a need to challenge underrepresentation through awards such as the SI Leeds Literary Prize (a biannual award for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women).

So while diversity and inclusivity have become fashionable words, peppering many a publishing manifesto, is it still a case of plus ça change?

Margaret Busby co-founded Allison & Busby.